I will never forget the shocked look on the faces of my European friends Aart and Irenea when I told them our grade-school students commence the academic year by selling gift-wrapping paper to raise money for art classes, music instruction, and field trips.
They were appalled that the U.S. is spending $600 billion dollars a year on defense while its schoolchildren are begging funds for museum trips.
Vast U.S. military expenditures during peacetime were not characteristic until President Truman approved a top-secret national security directive, NSC 68, which recommended full war mobilization of the U.S. economy, war or no war.
Written by security advisor Paul Nitze, the policy mandated the weapons procurement system that has driven the Pentagon ever since. Fear of a Communist takeover drove the policy behind NSC 68 and a dominant tactic of the strategy was to outspend the Russians in an arms race. In 1991, the tactic appeared to have worked.
Does the epitaph for the failed Soviet Union from author Héléne Carrére D’Encausse sound familiar? “After years of Soviet military buildup at the expense of domestic development, economic growth was at a standstill. Failed attempts at reform, a stagnant economy and a war in Afghanistan led to a general feeling of discontent and it collapsed.”
There has been a bruising debate in Congress about economic stimulus for our battered country. We’ve seen outraged senators rail against what they perceived as outrageous proposed expenditures. A compromise reached in the Senate cut $40 billion from a $79 billion fund the states would use to preserve school funding, $5 billion to help unemployed workers pay for health-care coverage, and $15 billion for states to develop renewable energy programs.
We’ve heard pernicious claims that funding education, healthcare, and consumer protection is frivolous. We repeatedly hear arguments against our government helping to create jobs and economic growth. But our so-called fiscal watchdogs do not seem vigilant when they approve $600 billion in annual funding for the Department of Defense: eight times the amount of U.S. federal spending on education. They also do not seem bothered that an additional $934 billion has been spent on defense since 2001 to fund the Global War on Terror (GWOT). That’s nearly $1 trillion tax dollars, authorized under a mechanism called “emergency supplemental” funding.
An emergency supplement authorizes immediate funding for crisis response without the delay of Congressional oversight. In the case of the GWOT, the emergency has continued for eight years in Afghanistan and six years in Iraq, with no congressional audit or supervision. Notably, of the nearly $1 trillion, only $2.3 billion went to the Veterans Administration.
Defense spending has become sacrosanct in this country. We are not experiencing the economic growth we did in the 1950s and 1960s but military spending has risen by an average rate of 10 percent annually since 2000. Should we not ask if this military spending is in our best interest?
California’s financial contribution alone to the GWOT is now $66.6 billion.
The defense budget has been fudged for eight years to pay for highly questionable military adventures, the country is suffering the worst job losses in decades, the competitiveness of the U.S. has been in question for some time, but we really don’t know the effect on our economy of spending $600 billion annually in and around the Pentagon.
In a background paper just released by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, author Travis Sharp addresses the challenges of reforming the funding processes. Entitled Pentagon Budget Faces Uncertain Future, the paper highlights four weapons systems. Here are two that demonstrate the difficulty of closing the spending spigot. In 2008, the Air Force wanted 381 more F-22 Raptors, an advanced fifth- generation tactical fighter, costing $384 million each. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated, “The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater.” Yet the Air Force was given $3.4 billion to continue the F-22 production line despite skepticism by strategic analysts. Another weapons system is the DDG-1000 destroyer, a large vessel for open ocean warfare against another naval power. The usefulness of such a vessel was questioned internally by the U.S. Navy and in July 2008 the department decided to terminate the DDG-1000 program (after building two vessels at approximately $1 billion each).
The congressional delegations where the ships are built rejected any suggestion to terminate the program based on job losses. The Navy had to reverse its opinion, citing concerns “about the stability of the industrial base”. In both cases, the military establishment appears to be caught in a system that is not serving even their needs. But the current economic upheaval can bring new perspective and possibilities.
An ongoing project at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst considers the return of investment of defense spending. Simply put, PERI has looked at what would happen if we took a considerable portion of defense funding and instead spent the money on health care, education, mass transit, energy conservation (specifically weatherization of homes), and infrastructure repairs. Using an input-output model, PERI determined $1 billion spent on defense would generate 8,555 jobs, not the 10,000 calculated by defense-industry lobbyists. More importantly, that same amount of money spent elsewhere would generate more jobs, better jobs, and it would do so faster. For example, $1 billion in spending for mass transit would generate 19,795 jobs, 131 percent more than by the DoD, and in education would generate 17,687 jobs, 107 percent more than by the DoD.
Ten years after Nitze wrote NSC 68, President Eisenhower warned in his famous farewell speech: “Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government….Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society”.
Those comments, I believe, were squarely directed against NSC 68. Before we end up in the trash can of empires, let’s now bid our own farewell to NSC 68. Let us evolve to a new perspective of what constitutes national security.
Dawn Ortiz-Legg holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies. Contact her through the editor, firstname.lastname@example.org.